Foxygen and Douglass Kellner: Critical Media Literacy, Satire, and American Kitsch in the 21st Century

To take after Master Miyagi, a discussion of the definition and function of critical media literacy has to begin with a seemingly unrelated & laborious discussion of the definition and function of literacy. This is the wax on, wax off portion. If the function of reading is to simply understand the sounds & formation of letters into words, and to understand the sounds & formations of words into paragraphs, and so on, the field of literacy involves not only the skill of reading, but the creation of texts (AKA writing), and, most importantly for this discussion, interpretation. Interpretation is carried out through the analysis of text and/or syntax in consideration with socially constructed forms of communication and representation, with acute attention for context, whether that be of a social, cultural, and/or temporal variety. That is to say, in much simpler terms, literacy is the practice of understanding a “deeper reason” for a text’s existence, accomplished by reading “between the lines,” or looking at the choice of words used, and at times the order they are used in as well, and making a connection to how those aforementioned chosen words affect the meaning of a statement in ways that are not immediately apparent, which is done while also being considerate of any sort of potential facts regarding the piece of text that could either influence or give insight to its meaning. Critical media literacy, as represented by Kellner and Share, differs in that while it has a basis in the same practice–the analysis of text–it expands beyond an insular setting, one in which contextual clues outside of the immediacy of a text’s pages can provide answers for a media text’s implicit messages. Its definition came about from a perceived educational necessity, with Kellner and Share looking the advent of the Internet with clarity and clairvoyance dead in the eye back in the early naughts, although many in education, whether of incompetence, disregard, or just underestimation

brushed off the pair’s concerns and approach as excessive, in comparison to the simplicity and self-regulating nature of ignoring media messages or avoiding the use of electronics. However, implementing an analytical framework that students are encouraged to foster from a young age to ultimately form critiques with regards for social hierarchies or frameworks of oppression that may have an implicit connection, if not cooperation, in un-nuanced, inflammatory messaging of marginalized groups creaties not only a media-literate population, negating the need for a

many-times inconsistent act of impulse control, a much more realistic goal considering that, while I conceit–technology corporations are assuredly evil, yes–it ignores the structural dependency on technology, from using social media as a means of networking at a young age to hopefully make the right connections and get a headstart in a career to pay off the hundreds of thousands of dollars in debts you owe as soon as possible, to Russia’s metro system screeching to a halt in efficiency, with the country’s banning from international payment infrastructure SWIFT resulting in inhumanely long lines to enter the metro as people fumble about for cash in their bags or wallets. In any case, while some may argue that its approach is limited to mass media texts such as television broadcasts or online articles, it is just as helpful to understand nuance in the media texts of cultural producers, such as music, visual art, and literature with Kellner and Share’s five core concepts for critical media analysis, which are as follows: the “Principle of

Non-Transparency,” “Codes and Conventions,” “Audience Decoding,” “Content and Message,” and “Motivation” (6-8).

It is 2017, and Foxygen, a two-piece neo-psychedelic band composed of frontman Sam France and producer Jonathan Rado, lifelong friends and bandmates for slightly shorter, put out what they, in all likelihood, probably thought would be seen as a grand return to form: a

33-minute satirical baroque pop album largely inspired by 40s Hollywood soundtracks & 60s/70s

LA country/blues/soul. At one point, they seemed like they would be the talk of the town for years to come, but after one-too-many misguided and middling projects following their breakthrough success with 2012’s Take the Kids Off Broadway, an incredibly frenetic and sonically unparalleled pastiche and meta-commentary of rock music, and ascension to indie rocker stardom, if only for a brief moment, with 2013’s heavily-streamlined We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic, an album which seemingly upset as many longtime fans as it did attract new ones, only for the multi-layered marketing hemorrhaging of fans between projects to hit a brick wall with their 2014 double album, …And Star Power, which, basically upon release, disillusioned many of a supposed longevity of the band. While the album has its fans, and it absolutely has moments of greatness, Foxygen’s commitment to seminal pastiches of rock of yesteryear and overconfidence in the project led to them losing a huge portion of the audience and intrigue which had surrounded them in the early 2010s as an

up-and-coming major force in the indie rock scene. After losing what they had built up over the course of two years after being signed to Jagjaguwar if not over the course of nearly a decade as a band, they took a break from their then-annual release schedule to reconvene and reassess what it is they value about Foxygen, the band, as a vessel for musical expression; they are not kids anymore, they have a label to make money for and their own mouths to feed. Which brings us back to the beginning. It is 2017, and Foxygen, a two-piece neo-psychedelic band composed of frontman Sam France and producer Jonathan Rado, lifelong friends and bandmates for slightly shorter, put out what they, in all likelihood, probably thought would be seen as a grand return to form: a 33-minute satirical baroque pop album largely inspired by 40s Hollywood soundtracks & 60s/70s LA country/blues/soul: enter Hang, stage left–an album that is, at least superficially, somehow more glam than Bowie, more “fruity” (George Harrison’s words, not mine) than any

McCartney number (see: “When I’m Sixty-Four,” “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” “Honey Pie,” and so on), and, most importantly, more kitsch than the Hollywood (particularly Disney) soundtracks which inspired a good deal of the composition of the album. It is chock-full of melodrama, with vocal performances, nasal and vibrato-heavy–dripping with pomp–that could easily be mistaken for self-parody. The compositions jerk about awkwardly as Foxygen fail to adopt their erratic approach to song structures for a large-scale orchestra. All of this said, these songs seem to be even more lifeless and devoid of the charisma of the band which this album is nominally masquerading as its creator. These are kiddy songs! What gives?

So, the album was not seen as a grand return to form. More unfortunate, though, is that people brushed it aside so hard after only superficially engaging with it–with the kitsch, with the fruitiness, and with the glam, which many saw (and maybe rightfully so, to some extent) as so excessive that they could not dig a little deeper into what the album is really about. I mean this next part seriously, this is not hyperbole, this is not exaggeration–I have read practically every interview Foxygen did in support of this album, and I have read practically every review from any sort of major publications and even individuals voicing their opinion, and I have never, not once, seen the word “satire” being applied to this work, except maybe to ask, usually in bad faith, if the album “is supposed to be satire” as a kind of dig into how superficially gaudy it is–getting to that first wall of confusion and never inquiring further. The question is rhetorical, I know that, yeah, but, in fact, this is a question that Foxygen themselves want the listener to ponder. I cannot stress enough just how common this is–for reviewers to have their engagement with the themes of the album beginning and ending with bad faith questions that serve to undermine the artist’s intent; this is representative of an uncritical literary analysis of media text, in which Foxygen, who, as cultural producers, are expected (incorrectly!), as Kellner and Share

write, “to present messages as non-problematic and transparent” (6). Just as a Nightly News show is constructed so that you are only presented a version of reality which a series of writers and editors and machinations of oligarchal forces find agreeable, Foxygen are presenting what essentially amounts to a maze. They are guiding listeners in every step of the analytical process, and I mean it! If you think you might be onto something and you look into their music videos for verification (Yes, the analysis does go that deep), you are more likely than not, if you have carefully constructed this analysis, to have your theories at least circumstantially approved. So, the listener can either choose to hit the wall and give up or really try and answer that initial question–if this is satire–and continue their analysis. There is a line in the closing track, titled “Rise Up,” that perfectly echoes this idea of the album passively “weeding out” the inattentive, the impatient, and the uncritical in thought, which also serves as a great example in how to further engage with the practices of critical media analysis; it explains how

“Quite a few shall wonder, very few shall know Everybody wants to change the world Everybody wonders where the red fern grows

Everybody wants to save their souls” (Foxygen 0:35-58),

While “everybody” wants to change the world, likely a kitschy reference to the hit 80s song by Tears for Fears, and “everybody” wonders where the red fern grows, and “everybody” wants to save their souls, not all of these people even make it as far as questioning the logistics of any of these admittedly very common sentiments, granted, I of course need to elaborate on the more metaphorical ones, but if there was poor retention from people who desire to change the world, for example, to those that ask themselves simple questions about how, then the dropout rate of those who even bother to ask simple questions in comparison to those who manage to figure any

of this stuff out is abysmal! The third (and fourth) line is a reference to the eponymous children’s novel Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls; the song uses the title of the album as a synecdoche of the red fern to interpolate its symbolism from the novel through recontextualization. As is told by Billy in Rawls’ novel, upon initially discovering the plant, he recounts an old Indian legend, which states that “only an angel could plant the seeds of a red fern, and that they never died; where one grew, that spot was sacred” (Rawls 126). After telling his parents about it, his father suggests that “Maybe this is God’s way of helping Billy understand why his dogs died” (Rawls 127) after it grows over the spot in which Billy’s two deceased hunting dogs are buried, especially considering these two dogs provided enough money for the entire family to move from the Ozarks to the city to make sure Billy could get a proper education, drastically changing the potential outcome of his life. The main character internalizes the event as a spiritual rebirth; the narrator, now an adult and expressing his emotions in the present, goes so far as to say that “part of my life is buried” (Rawls 128) under the red fern, with the dogs and the purpose they had in his life being as a microcosm for the superstitious, mystical connection he feels with the region of the Ozarks itself as the place of his childhood; the part of his life that is buried in there is his childhood, which he left in the Ozarks, as implied when he waves goodbye to the burial mounds for his two dogs as the car drives off and he says

“Good-bye, and don’t worry, for I’ll be here always” (Rawls 128), like a purgatorial life force which never ages and continues to live the same life forever, without aging, and without having to move, and without having to experience his dogs’ deaths. It may seem easy to write off Billy’s emotions as nostalgia, but nostalgia is not always connotatively a happy emotion; Billy’s nostalgia is more akin to regret and guilt, he feels incomplete as a person without the Ozarks.

When France sings about how “everyone wants to know where the red fern grows,” this is what

he is getting at. Everyone wants to know where their red fern is, and everyone wants to find something–anything, really–to fill in the guilt and regret we experience throughout our lives. Many times people turn to self-destructive tendencies to try and make themselves feel better, which is something that will be brought up later. The line after it, “Everybody wants to save their souls,” mirrors a Biblical quote, in particular from the Book of Matthew, “[25] For whoever wants to save his life will lose it […] [26] What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:25-26). There is something so special to the syntax of these two verses in the way the word choices seem to be at odds, like “lose” vs “profit” and “gain” or “save” vs “forfeit,” “life” vs “soul” and “whole world.” The deliberate contrasting of diction serves to emphasize just how futile of a struggle it is to try and fix yourself with things that only work to hurt even more; it is kind of an ego death in a sense, and I think it is a beautiful way to close the duplet and gives it the finality it deserves, which is later compounded with one of the last verses on the album, in which Sam France observes how

“You've been searching all your life For something 'til you realized

That what you seek was with you all the time

And everybody wonders where the red fern grows” (Foxygen 4:46-57),

which is to say that people have been “searching” for what this red fern could be, only to find themselves engaging in self-destructive behaviors and feeling intense regret and guilt for things they may have had no control over in their past, only to realize that they either have the power to make themselves feel whole, or they were acting as their own red fern, like Billy in the original novel, who places so much importance on his connection with the Ozark, and, in his words, the “dreams and memories” (Rawls 128) of the region from his childhood which he feels robbed of,

as a lost part of his identity that was buried along with his dogs. That is really unhealthy and really sad! But I get it! People carry the weight around for stuff like this their whole lives; I know I do. I think I will in the future. It really is haunting, even if you cannot explain it well to someone. It is an incredibly extensive analysis for what amounts to maybe six or seven lines, not even two whole stanzas, but at times critical media analysis requires such depth to be able to accurately extrapolate any sort of embedded values and points of view; as Kellner and Share point out in regards to the TV series Buffy, although it can be applied to other mediums like movies and music and art and literature and so on, “Content is often highly symbolic and thus requires a wide range of theoretical approaches to grasp the multidimensional social, political, moral, and sometimes philosophical meanings of a cultural text” (Kellner & Share, 8). Such is the case with Hang.

One of the more interesting ways in which Hang approaches managing a maze-like structure in which the listener’s proficiency in understanding the project is directly correlated with the amount of attention paid to engaging with the media text to uncover its subtexts, is with how ambiguous the lyrics of the album are. Misheard lyrics are not particularly unique in music, but even when looking up lyrics to the album online, different sources give completely different answers to the same lines. This is also not particularly uncommon, but the lines which are ambiguous can be the ones that carry the heaviest connotational (intentional or otherwise!) weight to them. Such is the case with a set of lines in “America,” a song (and the stanza within) which was seemingly constructed to act as a key in which to open and discover the real themes considering its structural and compositional position in the album (serving as a cinematic, heavily orchestrated climax for the first half), its introduction of thematic conceits which are expanded upon in Hang’s second half, and, the most on-the-nose aspect, the juxtaposition of its

imposing, chaotic composition–which immediately calls attention to itself from the opening of the song, with a string arrangement that repeats a single dissonant rhythmic motif and a dark brass section contrapuntually affirming the intimidating presence of the song, alternating between minor seconds to produce an effect comparable to that of steps being taken by a giant: slow, methodical, and commanding, only for this introduction to give way, quite unceremoniously, to a gilded, eerily optimistic verse–with the track’s title and inferred topic, “America,” acting as a reference point in which these tonal discrepancies should raise further inquiry, especially considering how prominently its discordant, mercurial composition contrasts the rest of the album’s superficial, lush glamor. An understanding and ascertainment of the differences between denotation and connotation are important to understanding the models of representation, positive or negative, of class, gender, race, or otherwise is paramount when looking at visual or textual passages, Kellner and Share explain, as “When connotation and denotation become one and the same, representation appears natural, making the historical and social construction invisible” (Kellner and Share, 6), which is explored the film Miss Representation, where it is explained that values such as leadership, independence, and confidence are portrayed as negative characteristics for women, and that actions from women that embody these characteristics are, more often than not, portrayed connotatively with the sexist conception of women as inherently emotional and melodramatic due to a predisposition which is innate to the sex that guides all of their actions; for example, in Congress, even if an action carried out by a female representative or senator is beat-for-beat, exactly the same as one performed by a male counterpart, such as, say, asking a question, media publications have a tendency to qualify male actions as guided by logic, or with a much more neutral, if not positive, tone–maybe they will report that this congressman “inquired” about something. In contrast, for

women, which, as previously detailed, tend to have their actions portrayed negatively, a congresswomen might “complain” about the same exact thing the congressman asked about in the same exact way and in the same exact tone. Of course, this does not only apply to groups of people, but more abstract concepts like wars, such as the American-penned “Mexican-American War,” which is a literal description of the type of conflict as well as its belligerents, in contrast to the Mexican name for the same conflict, the “American Invasion of Mexico,” a much more connotative qualification which, like the American title, lists the belligerents of the war, but whose syntax–active voice–clearly asserts the conflict as a one-sided instigation waged aggressively by the United States; it was not something that came about by dumb luck, magic, or any other passive force (which is true, mind you!) and it purports a purpose with the qualification of the instigation as an “invasion”–as opposed to an “occupation of Mexico,” which might portray the purpose as being annexation or to implement an authoritative, strongman rule of the country, or a “genocide of Mexico” which would assert the purpose as being exterminative–which asserts that the motive of the War was to gain land which was under Mexican jurisdiction. Alongside this is the negative connotation behind the term “invasion” as a military campaign, a deliberate postulation that is made to further clarify the nature of the conflict. Despite having military logistics that are identical to the military campaign of a liberation, an invasion has a subtextual stipulation which suggests that the conflict was undesired or otherwise unpopular by the people who resided on the land which was being fought over and that the military force which is carrying out the campaign, practically always acting solely in

self-interest, is either ignorant to, or completely apathetic about, the desires of those who currently occupy the land. In fact, once these lands were ceded, these populations often faced displacement and disenfrachisement–if they were lucky–if not slavery, rape, and murder; unlike a

liberation, which, as the name would suggest, is carried out to “liberate” a group of people and the land which they occupy, an invasion sees a group of people and the land which they occupy “invaded.” Likewise, historical epochs can have similar connotative differences guided by diverging opinions! The period in which the former Republic of Cuba, in contrast with the modern Republic of Cuba, governed–between Cuban independence from Spain in 1902 to the success of Fidel Castro’s revolutionary vanguard and subsequent Communist reforms in 1959–has been given two distinct and opposing retronyms–the “Neocolonial Period” by the current-day Republic of Cuba, which sought to end the United States’ longstanding exploitation of the country, and “Free Cuba” by Cuban exiles who oppose the Communist reforms brought forth by Castro. While connotation can be analyzed through the medium of text, it is not the only channel which facilitates nuanced review. Music, even beyond lyrics, can afford a similar level of subtextual scrutiny, as was explored with the earlier evaluation of how incongruous and inscrutable aspects of Foxygen’s song “America,” from instrumental composition to syntactic and contextual considerations, are meant to provoke inquiry from the listener to more closely engage with Hang as a holistic work, but, just as divergent opinions can guide connotative characterizations, connotative characterizations can result in divergent interpretations of the same texts, interpretations which themselves are reflective of the divergent “experiences, histories, and cultures within structures of dominance and subordination,” as Kellner and Share assert, explaining that while there is an “encoding of media texts by producers,” audiences do not passively receive these constructed media messages; even when not engaging critically with media texts, are active in that they, themselves, have a tendency to “produce their own readings and meanings and to decode texts in aberrant or oppositional ways, as well as the ‘preferred ways’ in tune with the dominant ideology” (Kellner & Share, 7-8), with the term “decoding”

serving as a term that is definitionally the same act as “encoding,” only with the qualification that “encoding” is done by those who “produce” media and “decoding” is done by those who “consume” media. And just like how text is not the only way to analyze and ascertain between the signifier and signified in representations of people, wars, historical periods, or anything else, it is also not the only way to encourage and then review divergent interpretations of the same media texts, which finally brings us back to “America” and the stanza which opens the floodgate to engaging with Hang on a much deeper level. By this point, the track has switched time signatures twice (starting in 3/4, switching to 6/8, then switching to 4/4 for basically the rest of the song until the end, which goes back to 3/4 to mirror the intro), gone from a minor mode (B double harmonic) to a major scale (B major) and back to a minor mode (B double harmonic), and has changed tempo God knows how many times–in one section it even gets into a swing rhythm! But unlike the first switch to a major scale, which was subdued and eerie, this time it is really climactic; it is something of an instrumental and tonal climax for the album and it sounds uplifting and powerful. At this point, after a minute or two without vocals from Sam France, he says something, and this thing is what makes the album. Except… no one is in agreement with what he says. So, it might make sense to start with what I can hear, which is that France is saying that “Our heroes are brave / They’ve just got nothing to lose” (Foxygen 3:21-28), but Musixmatch, which provides lyric information for Google and Spotify, has it registered as “Our heroes are bred / They just got nothing to lose” (MusixMatch), which obviously alters the weight of the lines more than just a little bit–but Genius, another lyric repository site, has yet another version of the duplet on their website, which states that ”Our heroes aren’t brave / They’ve just got nothing to lose” (Genius). Here is the thing: the lines are sung pretty ambiguously, yet, but I know two things, which are that the Genius version of the line is the one that makes most sense

considering the context of the album, as well as the tone of the song–with this extremely indulgent, jingoistic section being a microcosm of the rest of the song as a whole–as one which prides itself on irony and I think that there are so many interpretations which are positive because, despite this being the single closest point on the album Foxygen go to outright hitting you in the face with a hammer and telling you it is satire, it is still, somehow, so easy to take this ironically hyper-nationalistic sounding section with its blaring, dark horns as something of a climax to a national anthem without any critical thought. A line about the myth of bootstrapism and the exploitative nature of the US military which preys on the financial tenuousness of lower income communities becomes one about American exceptionalism proven through genetic superiority and/or action movie star badassery. This was no mistake, as these two alternate interpretations align too well with what and who Foxygen are satirizing to be simple coincidence.

Lastly, since there is just so much text to look at, it might be helpful to look at the context around the release of the album–most notably, its release date, which was on January 20, 2017–the day of Trump’s inauguration. As for what to take away from a release date like this in context to an album like Hang is that contextualizing must be filtered through this, which more than likely deeply affected France and Rado. Using the more-than-meets-the-eye kitsch that requires you to take a closer look, read between the lines, and see that it's actually a depressing allegory: a brilliant, deeply insular satire that takes aim directly at the United States, and subversively uses once-heavily-commercialized and potentially gaudy genres of music of different eras like big band in the 30s, LA country in the late 60s and early 70s, film soundtracks in the 40s, and hard blues as well as soul music in the early 70s, not to mention the exorbitant use of glam as an aesthetic and initially corny, albeit thoughtful and sensible references to hallmarks

of American culture (Where the Red Fern Grows, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”) and constant allusions to the Bible makes me think that Foxygen wanted to make a profound statement on commercialization itself while (if not by) reclaiming kitsch and critiquing a romanticization of fame and fortune as well as the self-destructive tendencies that people who seeking success in acting or otherwise more than anything else in life find themselves falling into, both of which are endorsed by Hollywood, and the myth of the American dream, a facet of another myth, this time of bootstrap theory, which only continues to see a widespread promulgation by deeply stagnant corporate interests like those within Hollywood who need to convince an entire pool of people of the statistic plausibility that they might become a star one day. As Kellner and Share close out on the five core concepts of critical media theory by explaining that “knowing what sort of corporation produces a media artifact or what sort of system of production dominates given media will help to critically interpret biases and distortions in media texts” (Kellner and Share, 9), and on that same note, knowing who Foxygen are as well as the date of release is essential to interpreting the subtextual messages in the album.

Works Cited

Foxygen. “America.” Spotify.

Transcript of lyrics from and

Foxygen. “Rise Up.” Spotify.

Kellner, Douglas and Jeff Share. “Toward Critical Media Literacy: Core concepts, debates, organizations, and policy.” Discourse: studies in the cultural politics of education, vol. 26, no. 3, Sept. 2005, pp. 369-386, provided by professor.

Rawls, Wilson. Where the Red Fern Grows. Doubleday, 1961.